The “weird sisters” of Shakespeare’s Macbeth who prompt the murder of a king. The sexually indeterminate old crones in popular 16th-century etchings with elongated duds and penises. The half-naked figures seated next to cadavers in Salvator Rosa’s seminal painting, Witches at their incantations. The green-faced hag that made The Wizard of Oz the stuff of children’s nightmares. These are some of the most memorable representations of the apparently heretical, wayward and sexually perverse women who have come to be called, and condemned, as “witches” through the ages.
The notion of the witch – a woman with nefarious magical abilities – is discernible first in the ancient world in seductive, sorceress figures such as Circe and Medea, and then in medieval Christian societies that fought out sectarian battles through female scapegoating, from Joan of Arc to the Pendle and Salem witch trials.